From the earliest periods of its history Islam has been, even in the restricted sense of the words, a missionary religion. Muhammad for ten years of his ministry was a preacher only. Borrowing the missionary idea from Buddhism and Christianity, he had not the patience to trust to its slow efficacy, but with an ardour more than Jewish, he threw the sword into the scale. The wonderful progress of Islam was due to the joint and skilful use of both the agencies of force and persuasion.
Islam was not propagated wholly by the sword even in its infancy. Side by side with the forcible method of conversion there have always been many other methods at work. Yet, one must be aware that the normal condition of Islam is a condition of warfare for the idea of any sort of equality existing between Muslims and polytheists is quite out of keeping with Muhammad’s notion of Islam. Yes, brotherhood and equality exist but only between believers. For a Muslim to live under the dominion of idolaters is a thing never contemplated by the founders of the faith.
It was purely a missionary religion to the citizens of Mecca and of Tayif, before the Prophet was established at Medina. It was also a missionary religion to some of the other Arab tribes, while the fugitives at Medina were still too weak to wield the sword. But even at this early period the ambition of Muhammad seems to have embraced the world. He claimed to be sent as a preacher to all creatures and to mankind in general.
>“Blessed is He who sent down the criterion to His servant, that it may be an admonition to all creatures” (Al-Furqan 25:1)
>“We have not sent thee but as a universal (Messenger) to men, giving them glad tidings, and warning them (against sin), but most men understand not (Sura 34:28).”
Every Muslim a Missionary
The Arab apologist for Christianity, Al Kindi, noticed that when Muhammad introduced the doctrine of abrogation he introduced an element of uncertainty. There are reckoned to be 225 abrogated verses in the Quran yet there is no certain way for distinguishing the abrogated from the non-abrogated verses. With such a shifting authority for his actions, the conduct of a Muslim cannot fail to be inconsistent. On many disputed questions he can justify even contradictory courses by quotations he can from his sacred book. Consequently, we find Muslims eager to convert unbelievers at one time, and then at another time they display complete indifference as they fall back upon the doctrine of predestination. “Of what use would it be”, say the fatalists, “to convert a thousand infidels would it increase the number of the faithful? By no means.” But this apathetic fatalism prevails chiefly in the times of a decaying Islam. When Islam is vigorous, conversion of infidels, or at least an offer of Islam, becomes an imperative duty, required of every Muslim.
A Muslim who went into distant lands did not think it necessary to keep his religion secret. He was not cautious or wary, as most Europeans are, of speaking of the faith that was in him. The name of God was ever on his lips, and at the stated times he performed his prayers, wherever he happened to be, in public or in private. A Muslim never hides his religious light under a bushel, nor does he perform his devotions to be seen of men, but because such public prayer is part of his creed. There can be no doubt that this publicity of worship, combined with the simplicity and sublimity of Muslim theology, has been of material benefit in spreading the creed of the Prophet, and has historically rendered unnecessary the establishment of any peculiarly missionary organisation. In some sense, then, every good Muslim is a missionary.
The missionary spirit is not alien to Islam either in ancient or modern times. It is not known how many inhabitants the peninsula of Arabia had in Muhammad’s day, but there are reasons for thinking that the number of Arabs who went forth as champions to propagate their new creed was no less than four millions. The question arises, what made their efforts so eminently and rapidly successful? To a certain extent we may say that the bulk of the Arabs cared little for the conversion of the infidel, while they cared very much for the reversion of their good things, in the shape of plunder, if they were pagans, and of annual tribute if the were “People of the Book” that is Jews, Christians or Zoroastrians. Most of the Arab generals and khalifs preferred to have Christians in subjection and paying tribute rather than that they should be converted and cease to pay the poll-tax. Yet no doubt, there were some more than usually devout Muslims who did not take this sordid view. For example we can quote with admiration the indignant reply of Omar Ibn Abd-al-Aziz, ‘the best of the Umayyads’, when told that his harsh decrees against the unbelievers would assuredly induce them to be converted, and that so much revenue would be lost to the state said, “Happy shall I be beyond measure if all the zimmis become Muslims, for God sent his apostle to do the work of a Prophet, and not that of a collector of taxes.” Harsh measures against the infidels were evidently considered likely to result in the conversion of many, and this reminds us that there were many motives for conversion apart from rational conviction, and many reasons which made Islam an attractive faith to the infidel and pagans.
Reasons for conversion to Islam
The pagan converts were not required so much to surrender as to modify their old faith which was grovelling in superstition. Islam came as a veritable message from on high. Embodying a simple and sublime truth, it required from the proselyte no change of heart, no change of life. Let him be but circumcised and repeat the easily formula and he is ipso facto a Muslim; to be a good Muslim, he must repeat his prayers five times a day, keep to the fast of Ramadan, and if possible make his pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam required nothing to de-nationalise an Oriental. An African chief is a slave-holder and polygamist.The Christian Mission came to him and said, as the price of his conversion, that he has to give up his wives and his slaves. The Muslim missionary came and said that he could keep both, yes, and even add to them! Is it surprising that he chooses Islam in preference to Christianity?
This is well recognised in a speech made by the Khalif Al-Mamun (813-833) to his counsellors and reported by a Christian Arab: “I well know that one and another (of his counsellors) though professing Islam, are really free from the same; they do it to be seen of me; while their convictions, I am well aware, are just the opposite of what they profess. They belong to a class who embrace Islam, not from any love of this our religion, but thinking thereby to gain access to my court, and share in the honour, wealth, and power of the realm; they have no inward persuasionof that which they outwardly profess …………. and indeed I know of one and another (of his counsellors) who were Christians and embraced Islam unwillingly. They are neither Muslims nor Christians, but impostors.” (‘Apology of Al Kindi’) Many went over to the dominant faith from motives of personal aggrandizement and to avoid the social disabilities which attached to the profession of other religions.
Personal ambition and religious animosity undoubtedly brought many adherents to Islam, but baser motives were not wanting. Al Kindi, the Arab apologist of Christianity, expressly mentions that his friend with whom he was debating, had tried to ensnare him with the prospect of many wives and concubines, and we may well suppose that such a motive did operate with some ignobly minded Christians. Wheeler says that it influenced some of the Hindu converts, and Bishop Steere commented that Christian native converts were sometimes tempted to apostatise in order to get wives. Islam can still hold forth to converts temptations such as these – admission into a great social caste, freedom from the lightest restriction in the matters of divorce and marriage, and the joys of a material Paradise.
A Christian missionary who will not admit a convert to baptism until and unless there is a reason for supposing that he has really determined to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, is taunted by the enemies of Christianity with making so few converts, while the rapid success of the Muslim propaganda is held up to his admiration by way of emphasising his supposed failure. But it certainly is a matter of congratulation that the Protestant Church has refused to follow the example of the Muslims in this respect, or even of the Roman Catholics, who in South India and China admitted to baptism converts who were heathen in all but name. Xavier is said in this way to have baptised incredible numbers of Indians; and these Indian converts, like the Chinese proselytes of the same Church, retain many of their heathen superstitions. The success of the propaganda of Islam should not therefore, surprise us. Islam appeals to the natural man; it legitimises sensuality; it connives at slavery and it requires no great sacrifice of man’s inclinations. It does, indeed, prohibit drinking of wine or spirits, and it enjoins a diurnal fast for a whole month, but it requires no holiness in a man.